“Now those folks were what I'd call downright unfriendly,” Hamp Sedley said. “And they were frying salt pork in possum grease. I recollect that smell from when I was a younker.”
“Good smell,” Shawn O'Brien said.
“And they had cornbread, too. Got me a whiff of that.”
“Too mean to share, I reckon,” O'Brien said. “Either that or they didn't want to kill us in their cabin and make a big mess.”
“Huh?” Sedley said.
“Four of them behind us. They've been dogging our back trail for the past hour.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“Because I look and you don't.”
O'Brien turned in the saddle and stared at the gambler, his left eyebrow lifting.
“How many towns sent a hemp posse after you for playing with a marked deck? Didn't you take a glimpse behind you then?”
Sedley's face stiffened. “My dear sir, I was never run out of town for cheating at cards. Well, there was that one time down Tucumcari way when vigilantes tarred and feathered me. But that was all an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
O'Brien grinned a question and Sedley said, “The playing card company made a mistake and put six aces in the same deck. I've never trusted the Bicycle brand since.”
“Ah, that's understandable,” O'Brien said. “Them slipping in an extra ace or two tends to get folks riled.”
“Those four rubes still behind us?” Sedley said.
“That's bad news.”
“For somebody, I reckon,” Shawn said.
The two men rode across the western edge of the badlands of Wyoming's Great Divide Basin, following the meandering course of Big Sandy Creek through timbered hill country. Ahead of them the peaks of the Wind River Range scraped a blue sky tinted with the red and jade of the coming evening.
“How do we play this, Shawn?” Sedley said.
“We make camp and head for Broken Bridle at first light.”
“I was talking about those four following us.”
“Strange-looking rannies,” Shawn said. “That's what happens when sisters can't outrun their brothers.” He shook his head. “Too bad.”
“They looked mean.”
“What the hell do they want?”
“Well, I'd say our horses, guns, and everything else we have of value about our persons.”
“I need to be close, Shawn. I mean across a card table close.”
“I know. But I don't think that's going to be a problem. It will be close.”
Sedley's handsome face was set and grim. “They're not gentlemen,” he said.
“The very opposite, I imagine,” Shawn O'Brien said.
“Pity,” Sedley said. “I always enjoyed swapping lead with a well-born fellow. Made a man feel classy, like he's stepping up in the world.”
“You ever hit any of those fine gentlemen?”
“Well, I shot the riverboat gambler Jean Francois St. John in the thumb one time in New Orleans after he called me out. It was only a grazing wound, but he said his honor was satisfied and we parted friends.”
O'Brien smiled. “Very civilized and all that.”
“Indeed it was. A minor dispute between sporting gentlemen.”
“The shooting scrape we're about to get into won't be civilized and it won't be minor, depend on it,” O'Brien said.
O'Brien and Sedley rode in silence for ten minutes, then Shawn suddenly drew rein.
“All right, they've pushed us far enough,” he said. “I want this done before the light fails.”
He drew his Colt and fed a round from his cartridge belt into the empty chamber under the hammer, then did the same with a second revolver he retrieved from his saddlebags.
“What are you doing?” Sedley said. He looked worried. “Do we dismount and bushwhack them?”
“Something a mean old reprobate by the name of Luther Ironside taught me when I was a young man at Dromore, my father's ranch.”
O'Brien let the reins drop and held up both Colts.
“âWhen all else fails, take the fight to the enemy,' Luther said. âCharge with guns blazing and unholy hellfire in your eyes.'”
Sedley drew his gun. His mouth was a tight, hard line under his trimmed mustache. “And what do I do, Mr. Hellfire?” he asked.
“Shove the nose of your horse into my sorrel's ass and keep it there.”
Before Sedley could react, O'Brien kicked his startled horse into a gallop and let rip with a wild rebel yell . . .
Just as Luther Ironside had taught him.
Isa Cranston and his three sons had killed men before, but always at a distance. They were highly skilled riflemen who used the ambush and the head shot to great success, and usually their victims were dead when they hit the ground. At least the lucky ones were. Others endured a long, drawn-out, much more painful death.
“They'll make camp and that's when we bring them down,” Isa told his sons, illiterate, inbred cretins he'd named Joshua, Abraham, and Moses.
Despite their mental limitations, the Cranstons were confident, in command, and planned what were routine murders the like of which they'd done many times in the past, killings that would land them a windfall of guns, money, clothing, boots, and two fine horses.
But they'd never encountered a mounted revolver fighter before, trained by Luther Ironside in the ways of the great and heroic cavalry commander Colonel Turner Ashby, the incomparable Black Knight of the Confederacy, the Centaur of the South, a leader of hallowed memory.
Putting into effect what Ironside had taught him, Shawn O'Brien hurtled into the Cranstons like an avenging windstorm.
Colts bucking in his fists, he hit Isa and the man next to him in a single hell-firing moment of mayhem.
Then O'Brien was through them.
He turned the rearing, battle-maddened sorrel with his knees, his face to the enemy.
Hamp Sedley, a man with sand but no revolver skill, slammed his big American stud into the mustang of a lanky towhead with small, tight eyes and a thick beard down to his belt buckle. The little mustang went down hard, but with considerable skill its falling rider snapped off a Winchester shot before he slammed into the ground.
The bullet burned across the left shoulder of Sedley's frockcoat and ripped broadcloth, drawing blood. He cursed, fired at the man on the ground, and missed.
But then battle-maddened Shawn O'Brien descended on the two surviving Cranstons like the wrath of God.
The man who was still mounted battled his frightened paint pony and tried desperately to get his unhandy .56 Spencer rifle into the fight.
O'Brien ignored the man and concentrated on the greater dangerâthe Cranston brother who'd been thrown from his mustang.
The towhead was on his feet, a Winchester to his shoulder. O'Brien charged, both guns blazing, and he and the rifleman fired at the same time. The towhead went down, shock and disbelief on his face, and was dead within seconds.
In a gunfight a man who's used to one thing but gets another can easily be unnerved.
Moses Cranston had killed three men and shared five more, but he'd never been in a gunfight. He'd shot at men from a hundred yards and watched them topple over like ducks in a shooting gallery.
Suddenly the big man on the tall horse galloped out of his worst nightmare. Moses fired too quickly and his bullet threw wild.
He didn't have time to think about it.
Four .45s dead-center chest will drop any man, and Moses Cranston drew his last breath before he hit the ground.
The man on the paint wanted out of it. He threw down his Spencer and yelled, “I'm done.”
O'Brien would have let it go. But Hamp Sedley, shocked by how close he'd come to death, was not in a mood to forgive and forget.
He two-handed his Colt to eye level, aimed, and fired.
Coldly, dispassionately, he watched the man take the hit, then fall and lie still.
Sedley looked into Shawn O'Brien's widened eyes. “Serves him right,” he said. “Trying to kill good Christian folks like that.”
“You don't believe in turning the other cheek, do you, Hamp?” O'Brien said.
“The other cheek of my Texas ass, maybe,” Sedley said.
A woman walked through the pines and drifting gun smoke.
She wore a dress made from a
flour sack, and her feet were bare and her horned toenails looked like bear claws. Her hair, once auburn, hung in dirty gray tangles, framing a face that was covered in wrinkles so deep they seemed to have been cut with wire. Her eyes had long since lost their luster and were the color of mud. She had no teeth, good or bad.
Shawn O'Brien took the woman to be in her late seventies, worn down by a lifetime of hard work and deprivation.
In fact Molly Cranston was thirty-eight that summer.
The woman didn't spare O'Brien or Sedley a glance. She stumbled to her husband's body, rolled him onto his back, and crossed his arms over his chest. Her face showed no grief, no anger, no emotion of any kind, as though she wore a Nipponese face mask of the starkest white. The woman moved to her dead sons, at one point heedlessly brushing against O'Brien's leg, and began to arrange them in the same way.
Shawn moved to dismount, but Sedley stretched out a restraining hand.
“She doesn't need your help, nor would she appreciate it,” the gambler said. “She's known for years that this would happen one day.”
Clouds had gathered and a light summer rain fell, ticking through the branches of the pines. There was no wind, and gun smoke drifted through the still air like a mist. Crows cawed in their tattered finery, attracted by the smell of dead men.
“The old woman can't carry home her dead,” O'Brien said.
“She won't,” Sedley said. “She'll lay them out and stay with them. Then she herself will die very soon.”
“So we just ride away and do nothing?”
“Yeah, that's exactly what we do.”
Anger flushed in Sedley's throat and face. “Damn it, Shawn, we just killed four men and now you see the result.”
“Consequences have no pity. All a man can do is accept them for what they are and move on.”
Sedley swung his horse away. “Best we camp for the night far from here,” he said. “The lady doesn't want us around.”
Later that night by the campfire, Shawn O'Brien dreamed of his murdered wife, her naked, outraged body spread over a moss-brown boulder on England's swampy Dartmoor plain.
Deep in uneasy sleep he whispered her name . . .
“Judith,” Hamp Sedley said, staring at O'Brien through the flimsy morning light. “You said Judith over and over again.”
“My wife,” O'Brien said. He blew on his smoking-hot coffee.
“I know,” Sedley said. “I don't have the words, Shawn.”
O'Brien nodded. “It's all right, Hamp,” O'Brien said. “Neither do I.”